Hi! I am the one critic on Earth who loved the first season of Smash. When I heard it was getting a major re-tooling for its midseason return, I was a little dismayed. Would it lose the elements I love about it? The Fame-esque/restrained Chorus Line rehearsals, the street shots of the city that feel so authentically New York, the thrill of show time from backstage?
Glory be, the new showrunner (Gossip Girl’s Josh Safran) kept all those elements, and tipped out of the canoe some of the dead weight that bogged down Season 1. Namely:
1. Ding dong, Frank is gone! The torturous marriage of Julia and Frank looks to be completely, fabulously dissolved.
2. NO LEO. Easily the most hated character besides Ellis the Scheming Henchman, Julia’s 16-going-on-7 son was nowhere to be found in the premiere or Season 2 promos.
3. NO ELLIS! The mustache-twirling villain-without-a-cause was blissfully absent and for that we can all be thankful.
4. Derek is getting called out on being a sexual predator. His storyline last night included him questioning whether he was even attractive as six dancers filed charges of sexual harassment. A rather eloquent yoga instructor also summed him up nicely, telling Derek he woke up every day with more power than everyone he worked with, yet never respected it. And his woozy ruminations on all the girls he’d diddled led to the craziest, most neon musical number Smash has ever done. That pink-high-heels group table dance was so weird and spectacularly lit and felt like an 80’s music video in all the right ways. More of that insanity s’il vous plait.
5. Hey, there’s another hot young female star on Broadway and she’s not an asshole or a raging diva! Jennifer Hudson was remarkable and she looks stunning. What a genuine star.
6. Karen’s gotten “aged down” a little in her living arrangements and costumes, she’s no longer an engaged woman with a stodgy boyfriend (bye Dev!), she’s a hot young thing living with a gaggle of jazzy friends who love launching into a capella at the drop of a hat like a Glee + Friends.
7. Someone finally didn’t lap up Karen’s B.S. and beg for seconds. Karen ran up against the first and only character who didn’t want to take her out for a “New York Moments Montage” seconds after meeting her and wow, was it refreshing. For once when she got up and flexed the autotune glory of her pipes, the intended audience got FURIOUS at her instead of getting down on their knees and thanking the Lord for having ears.
But now I want to talk about plot elements from the Smash premiere that concern me. And Hipster Genius Barkeep is by far the most concerning. Not that I don’t secretly thrill to someone being rude to Karen (her character is just too jazzed about how she sounds—she’s Pollyanna meets Sharpay from High School Musical). But the idea of a snarky barkeep casually strolling over to a bar piano after a full shift and launching into some amazing “Jonathan Larson” song he’s written, singing with his whole heart and a full orchestra backing him up somehow, and unaware someone is listening... I had to chuckle. The ladies of Smash sure have profited from meeting men in bars! And then his writing partner/fellow barkeep pulling out his envelope of dozens of playbills that he keeps stashed under the bar fulltime for some reason... it was all a little silly. But perhaps silliest is the idea that this guy who KNOWS HE’S GOOD, THANK YOU would refuse anyone’s help launching his musical. That’s probably the biggest leap of disbelief the show asked us to make last night, that a young person in 2013 would not be savvy enough to know that you take whatever kind of help you can get in any creative field.
Don’t get me wrong, I like the conceit that Bombshell will be dueling with a younger, hipper production for Karen’s attention. And I absolutely loved Karen getting shut down by someone at long last after being rude enough to treat the room to a buzzed, top-of-her-lungs serenade. But PLEASE do not let this guy be her romantic interest. I am not buying it.
And this brings me to the thing that worries me most: I genuinely loved Derek and Karen’s complicated, sometimes-icky-but-always-chemistry-filled Season 1 relationship. Her being his muse or his dark twisted fantasy or whatever she is to him—I’m into it. I 'ship it big time. Titanic-size 'ship, for me. If we’re supposed to believe this Sandisk-toting, faux-hipster Genius Barkeep is her new romantic interest I’m going to be quite put out. Even if he’s meant just to prop up another leg of the Ivy-Derek-Karen love triangle for some sexy quadrangulation, I REALLY don’t buy Karen and Genius Barkeep as having ANY romantic chemistry. I understand the will-they-won’t-they Sam-and-Diane tension this premiere seemed aware of between Derek and Karen, but that he walked away from her so easily when the production was frozen... I sort of missed his fantasies of Karen-as-Marilyn and being a little in awe of her and protective of her. But seeing if this element will come back into play and charting the various horrible heartbreaks of Ivy and waiting for my Jaren moments is what’s going to keep me returning to watch for the rest of the season.
– Genius Barkeep: What is his problem!?
– Jennifer Hudson's character: Will she become a threat or stay a friend to Karen?
– Did Julia’s couch-meld breakdown cut too close to home?
– Are you glad Frank and Leo got the old heave-ho?
– Karen and Derek: Headed for romance or will they be “Sam and Diane’d” for all time?
– The show's new direction: Where do you think the season is headed and will it keep you watching?